Taking the pith

Thanks to the Western world’s love of taking souvenirs, albums of paintings on pith being a prime example, the John Rylands Library has been provided with one of its hidden treasures.

They are sometimes mistakenly called “rice paper paintings”. The only common characteristic with rice it is its organic nature and, even though they come from a tree, the final sheet is not manufactured like paper.

Although China opened its market trade to the Western world in the 18th century, it was not until the early 19th century when Western commerce flourished. Canton was the only port, in all China, open to foreign traders at that time, and the demand for small and tasteful souvenirs increased. This led to the use of a large amount of the small trees, tetrapanax papyrifer (fig. 1), natively grown in the area.

Pith is the inner spongy cellular tissue of branches and stems of tetrapanax papyrifer and has been used in Chinese medicine, as well as production of hats, shoe soles and artificial flowers but also as a support for beautiful Chinese paintings, providing a semi-transparent and magical finish.


Figure 1. Drawings of the Tetrapanax papyrifer

Unlike paper, which is manufactured from wood or other fibres, the sheets of pith paper are cut directly from the pith. The trees were cut after 2-3 years of cultivation and then plunged in a pond to soak (fig. 2). The bark became tender and it was stripped off (fig.3), or the pith forced out with the help of a wooden or metal device. The pith had to be sundried quickly to retain its whiteness, otherwise they could discolour or stain easily.


Mastering the cutting of pith is a complex art. A special knife is slightly indented into the pith, kept steady and the pith is rolled, slicing away a continuous layers and a sheet is formed (fig 4). No scraps are wasted; the big sheets are destined for paintings, smaller ones to make delicate, decorative flowers and the shavings used as stuffing for pillows, among other uses.

The bigger sheets of pith are piled up making bundles. Once this process is finished they are ready to be painted and they are distributed to the artisans.

Figure 4. Cutting sheets of pith

The oldest known Chinese pith painting dates from the mid-1820s and they were popular until the 1860s. The themes of these paintings were aspects of Chinese life, an intriguing and attractive subject to foreigners. They depicted professions, arts and crafts, nature such as plants and insects, and the fine paintings of costumes of the Manchu emperors, empress and officials (fig.5).

Figure 5. Chinese Drawings 46 JRL.

The artisans in the workshops were painting the pith sheets using watercolours and gouache. Watercolours have more transparency and the particles of pigment are smaller than gouache. Sometimes they were used to paint details, like the faces, on the reverse of the pith, playing with its transparency, and to add the magical effect (fig.6). Gouache, on the other hand, contains chalk and is more opaque than watercolour; it was often used for the highlights in the paintings. In general, the palette was formed by quite vivid colours.

Figure 6. Chinese Drawings 44, JRL. Detail of the watercolour on the cheeks through a magnifying glass.


Once completed, each pith painting was traditionally placed on Chinese or Western paper as backing. The pith edges were held down with Chinese silk ribbon or coloured paper only adhered directly to the paper, not pith, due to its sensitive nature (fig.5 and 7). The pages were then bound between album covers most commonly in groups of twelve. Each album usually depicted a single subject.

Chinese 146
Figure 7. Chinese Drawings 146, JRL.

If we look closer to the pith we can see clearly the porous structure of the cells (fig. 8). This is because the pith is composed of soft, spongy parenchyma cells, which store and transport nutrients throughout the plant. The sheet is not made by a mesh of fibres, like we find with paper, but a direct transversal cut of the plant, keeping the structure intact. Due to this characteristic, it creates a velvety translucent surface, allowing the paint to enter slightly into the cells creating a three dimensional effect which differs and makes it special from other supports.

The consequence for that uniqueness is that the structure is delicate; it becomes quite brittle with time and is very sensitive to changes in environment, tending to tear and stain easily with fluctuations of humidity and temperature that could rapidly deteriorate the object. With time it loses its flexibility and the pages of the albums are not safe to turn, they can’t be allowed to flex so need to be fully supported and kept rigid when turned, which it complicates its handling.

Detail 146
Figure 8. Structure of the pith. Detail from the base on the right at Chinese Drawings 146 JRL in figure 7.

Another obvious feature is the lines that tend to run horizontally through the surface of all pith supports (fig. 9). Within a sheet these lines are about evenly spaced but may vary between sheets. They are the result of the manufacture of the pith, which was cut with the steady held knife similar to the chain lines of paper but completely unrelated.

Figure 9. Chinese Drawings 45 JRL. Detail of the lines on the surface created by the special knife during manufacture.

The reason for highlighting pith paintings and the Rylands Chinese Drawings collection is not only to share and highlight the delicate and magical nature of these items but to explain why we took the pith out of the “Alchemy of colour” exhibition in The John Rylands Library.  The fragile nature of these drawings could not be safely displayed for the duration of the exhibit, however Collection Care wanted to share the intended page with you, and a few others.

The importance of Chinese Drawing 146’s opening is the detail in one of the bases at the centre of the painting (fig. 7), portraying several tools and brushes. It is an interesting feature which illustrates the type of tools used on the production of this type of drawings and it’s quite unusual to find this information depicted in this sort of painting.

Figure 10. Chinese Drawings 146, JRL. Detail of the tools from figure 7.

I would like to thank to Carme Miquel for the wonderful drawings from figures 1 till 4, the Heritage Imaging team for the great resolution photographs of Chinese Drawings 146, and the editing help of the Collection Care team.





2 comments on “Taking the pith

  1. I enjoyed learning about this special material called Pith and collaborating with some of the drawings.Thank you, Elisabeth Carr!

  2. Pingback: Taking the pith — John Rylands Library Special Collections Blog | Laura Caradonna

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: